NEA, AFT Take Up the Thorny Issue of Teacher Quality

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The national teachers' unions displayed their growing commitment to teacher quality with a recent joint conference exploring ways that unions can work to improve the profession.

The gathering here Sept. 25-27, the outgrowth of a joint council of leaders from both unions, drew teams of educators, policymakers, and community leaders from around the country.

On the agenda were programs and policies aimed at improving the quality of the teaching workforce, ranging from education, licensure, and recruitment of new teachers to peer assistance and review, professional development, and certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Sandra Feldman, the president of the 985,000-member American Federation of Teachers, said the issue of teacher quality is "fraught with danger" for unionists, but must be tackled.

Sandra Feldman

"It isn't easy to take on when members are paying dues and don't always see the connection" between their union and the quality of their colleagues, she said in her keynote address. "But part of what we have to do is help them see that connection."

The unions must also embrace efforts to improve teachers' knowledge and skills, she argued, because of the increasing demand for teachers. Over the next 10 years, school districts are expected to hire more than 2 million new teachers to replace those retiring and keep pace with rising enrollments.

Link With Standards

Union members themselves are calling for help in becoming better teachers, noted Bob Chase, the president of the 2.4 million-member National Education Association.

In a poll done earlier this year, Mr. Chase said in his opening remarks, "almost 70 percent of our teacher members said they wanted NEA and its state and local affiliates to expand bargaining to include education quality issues, while 30 percent wanted their union to stick to bargaining salaries and benefits."

Although many districts and states are pursuing higher standards for students, few understand the changes in teaching practice that must accompany them, Mr. Chase warned. "Higher standards are great," he said. "But teachers, not standards, teach students."

William Schmidt, the national research coordinator for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study and a professor at Michigan State University, told participants that top-scoring nations gear teachers' professional development to the content they are expected to teach at particular grade levels.

"In this country," Mr. Schmidt said, professional development "is generic--using manipulatives or group learning." He also faulted American schools for searching for one perfect pedagogical approach, rather than acknowledging that many techniques can produce results.

Research has proved that when teachers' on-the-job learning is connected to the subjects they teach, their students learn more. That finding, while appearing obvious, has yet to make its way into most state policies, said Tom Corcoran, a co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education, a group of five research institutions based at the University of Pennsylvania.

State requirements for so many hours or days of professional development force teachers to worry about filling those quotas, with much less thought to the quality of what is offered, he said. "This is really a problem, because it diverts attention from what they are learning," Mr. Corcoran said. "Teachers are busy collecting hours."

No Public Outcry

Making the case for investing in teacher quality isn't easy because it's not a hot button with the public, argued Nancy Doorey, a member of the Delaware state school board. "We don't hear these outcries of 'The public wants a revamping of certification,'" she joked.

In her state, Ms. Doorey said, policymakers have tried to focus on giving teachers plenty of professional development. In exchange, she called on unions to "openly acknowledge the difference in effectiveness of teachers. Ineffective teachers must be shown the door."

In New York state, an overhaul of teacher-related policies includes new grounds for revoking licenses. One of those reasons is gross incompetence, which should prevent poor teachers from simply switching districts when they are fired. The change was ultimately supported by the New York State United Teachers, an AFT affiliate.

Antonia Cortese, the first vice president of NYSUT, said the union leadership feared an assault on tenure as the task force began its work. But union members were clear that "they did not want an incompetent teacher next door," she said.

Both of New York's state teachers' unions saw increased professional-development requirements, geared to state standards and assessments, as a path to better quality. "This is an issue you have to be proactive on," Ms. Cortese told the conference. "You can't appear to the public to be trying to just defend your members."

'Turning Point'

Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based consultant who is the co-author of a recent book on teacher unions, called the conference a turning point.

The issues under discussion, she pointed out, "were all incredibly controversial five years ago." The unions' growing interest in professional issues doesn't mean they plan to relax their attention to more traditional matters, however.

The former schism between union leaders who were interested in reform and those who were focused on bread-and-butter issues is disappearing, Ms. Koppich argued.

"The traditionalists have come to understand why it's important to deal with reform," she said in an interview. "And those who are focused on reform have come to understand the value of contracts."

Vol. 18, Issue 6, Page 6

Published in Print: October 7, 1998, as NEA, AFT Take Up the Thorny Issue of Teacher Quality
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